New tech institute goes old school

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Dick Case, Neighborhoods

Nick DiBello pops the door into Lincoln Auditorium at Central High School. We walk into a time capsule about to be reopened after 30 years.

"It's going to be exactly like it was," he says.

That's the good news out of the southern district of downtown Syracuse this week: The project to redo the 102-year-old landmark of a school looks to be back on a schedule, after dozing more than two years. We could see crews working on the exterior this fall.

Nick is the city school district's facilities manager. He's on this one three years, since the city bought the school back from a developer. The idea's to reopen it as the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central High School.

By the fall of 2007, we may be looking at a $36 million state-of-the- art technical high school for metropolitan Syracuse, drawing students from the city and suburbs.

Nick's good to go. There's no hiding his excitement. He has a piece of the passion connected to this special adaptive reuse of a building that means a lot to Syracuse. Central's hearty alumni corps is ready to push the project back onto the tracks should it slip off again.

Delays since the building was purchased for $3 million in 2002 added about $10 million to the cost of re-creating our first technical high school since most of Central Tech closed in 1975.

Technical education at the high school level lost favor in our town. We built Fowler and moved students out of Central, selling off equipment and eventually the building to a developer who tried to convert it for office space.

Now Syracuse is the only major city in New York without a technical high school. What survives is the tech program created when the school district built an annex in 1959.

That building will be incorporated into the new Central. A new gym will be raised on the Montgomery Street side of the technical wing and parking and landscaping improved.

Those were some of the plans I heard about last week when Nick DiBello and his helpers toured me around Central: architect Mike Ebertz and project manager Brian Cieslinski of Thomas Associates, architects and engineers; and John Dittman, the district's project coordinator.

The team's plan aims to modernize the building while bringing back its traditional splendor. This is, after all, a national landmark.

Lincoln Auditorium was created from the original's assembly hall when Central was expanded to the south in the 1930s. It added a new dimension to a city school: a home to the city's premier concert hall with world-class acoustics.

Fifty years later, when the developer started to redo the school (it's only half done), the auditorium and all its history were sealed and untouched, except to cut the stage in half to create a four-story atrium.

It's odd, walking into Lincoln after 30 years a darkened house. Except for some dropped plaster, dusty seats and a chandelier that fell into the orchestra section, this is the same room where Central graduated its last senior class June 21, 1975.

Squeeze the imagination, and watch the musical legends parade across that stage: Syracuse Symphony in its first season, George Gershwin, the Cleveland Orchestra, Trapp Family Singers, Don Cossack Chorus, Paul Whiteman, Spike Jones, Rachmaninoff . . .

Not to forget the hundreds of City League basketball games that pounded those hardwoods. We watched from orchestra seats.

Nick DiBello says the stage will be re-created at its original depth; seats will be covered, not replaced.

The entire building's to be a school. The district dropped plans to move its central offices into Central.

Mike Ebertz and Brian Cieslinski explain the special inside storms they plan for the original windows, and how hardwood floors taken out by the developer in hallways will be re-created. Likewise old classrooms broken up in renovations.

"Quite a few of the original blackboards are here," Mike says. "And the old principal's office will be the new principal's office," Nick adds. Lockers and bathrooms are planned for every floor.

Nick sees the renewed Central as the anchor of the south end of downtown, a piece of a renaissance of the neighborhood. We're promised a new convention hotel and maybe a rehabilitated Hotel Syracuse.

The construction experts say the basic building is in remarkably good shape, considering its age. "Amazing," according to Mike Ebertz, whose firm specializes in bringing back aging schools.

John Dittman, the school district's coordinator for the Central project, is a former construction trades teacher at Central Tech and considers this a dream job. He signed on five years ago in the team that proposed the "new Central" to district leaders.

John explains that the comprehensive center to be opened in two years blends technical instruction with academics "in one building."

Each student will have technical teachers and an academic support team. Unlike today, they won't have to leave one of the four high schools to travel downtown.

"No more disconnect," according to John, who supervises a program of about 750 city pupils. The new school will teach about the same number, plus 250 from county schools, through BOCES.

We need state approval of a complex finance plan for Central, and other city school projects, to make this real.

2005 The Post-Standard.


Central issue: Find the money

Latest plan would use aid to cover borrowing for Institute of Technology.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

By Maureen Nolan, Staff writer

Syracuse school officials still are trying to find a way to finance a stalled plan for a $36 million career-technical high school in the old Central High building.

The proposed Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central High School was slated to open in September 2003, but after a couple of financing options fell through, the project slowed to a stop.

At this point the fastest way to get the school open appears to be through a proposed district/city effort to renovate all the city schools in a decade, district Facilities Director Nicholas DiBello said this week.

Mayor Matt Driscoll favors that approach, city Director of Administration Ken Mokrzycki said Wednesday.

But Education Commissioner Calvin Corriders, who heads the school board's Facilities Committee, said he thought the district's plan was to finance the new school through conventional bonding and that he needs to look into the issue.

If the state approves the mass renovation effort, and if other pieces fall into place, the district could start construction in the fall for a September 2007 opening, DiBello said. But the state Legislature and Gov. George Pataki must approve the joint construction project.

The plan is to create a full-time, state-of-the-art career and technical high school in the former downtown high school at East Adams and South Warren streets. The eventual enrollment would be about 1,000 students, including 250 from suburban districts. The project has been in the works since 2001.

The district, working with the city, borrowed $5 million for the project through bonding. That covered $3 million to acquire the vacant building and $2 million for design work, DiBello said.

The project hit its first obstacle in 2002. Until then, the plan was for the district and city to borrow money through bonding to pay for the project, which is the traditional way of financing school construction. Most of the project cost would be reimbursed by the state.

But the city discovered in 2002 that it had reached its constitutional borrowing limit, which halted the project. In January 2003, Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro said the county might borrow the money on behalf of the district, but that never happened.

In August 2003, Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen C. Jones announced an innovative plan for renovating all district schools over 10 years at a cost of more than $600 million. The plan is to use annual state aid payments to back the borrowing instead of tax dollars. That would mean the debt would not appear on the city's books, so the debt limit would not be a problem, and schools could be renovated faster.

If the innovative funding plan doesn't happen, the district will go back to the traditional borrowing to create the school, DiBello said.

School board President Cynthia Kirby said the new school is the district's top construction priority, followed by renovations of Shea and Blodgett schools, which are equal priorities.

The district's current construction project is to wire and equip 22 schools for technology and the Internet.

2005 The Post-Standard.